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Vatican to Allow Beijing to Name Bishops

It is never a good idea to sign a deal just for the sake of signing a deal

This article originally appeared on OnePeterFive

The Vatican is set to sign an agreement with China by the end of the month, one that cedes control over the appointment of bishops to Beijing. In return, we are told, Beijing has agreed to recognize the pope as the head of China’s Catholics.

From my position as a longtime observer of the machinations of the Chinese Party-State, this seems like a bad deal. The pope is ceding his very real authority to name bishops to China’s communist authorities in return for the promise of symbolic recognition as the titular head of all Catholics in China. Might he not be giving up something for nothing?

The Vatican originally proposed that China follow the terms of an agreement it had reached with the Vietnamese government over the appointment of bishops. Under its terms, the Vatican and the Vietnamese authorities, working together, draw up a list of candidates. The Vatican then chooses someone from the list who, once Hanoi ratifies the choice, is consecrated as a bishop by the pope. Such a model clearly preserves papal authority.

This “Vietnam model” was rejected by China, however. As the official Global Times later reported (italics added), “[s]uch a model was not accepted by China when it was tested in the country in 2005, as the Chinese authorities want total control over choosing candidates.

Beijing went on to insist upon a “Chinese model,” under the terms of which the communist authorities alone will nominate a potential candidate for bishop. The pope must then approve or reject that candidate. If he vetoes the first candidate, Beijing will nominate another.

The pope’s “veto power,” however, is not unlimited.

As a Chinese official familiar with the negotiations was quoted as saying, “[w]e cannot submit endless candidate lists to the Vatican if the pontiff keeps saying no. We may have to appoint bishops unapproved by the pontiff after a set number of rounds of negotiations. Such bishops may not be legitimate under the Church doctrine, but they can still give Church services to Chinese Catholics.”

In other words, the pope may veto an obviously unsuitable candidate or two, but Beijing has made it clear that there is a limit to the number of times a papal veto can be used. It has also limited the amount of time that the Vatican has to respond once a candidate’s name is submitted.

This means that at the end of the day, it is the communist authorities, and not Pope Francis, who will have the final say over who becomes a bishop in the Chinese Catholic Church.

The Vatican is reportedly prepared to make other concessions as well.

Perhaps the most important is that Pope Francis will formally consecrate as bishops seven men who were made “bishops” by the communist authorities over the past decade. All of these men have been previously rejected by the Vatican as bishop candidates for various reasons having to do with personal morality, public actions, or both.

In a further concession, the Vatican has promised that the pope will lift the excommunication of the seven illicit “bishops” of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association even before the new agreement is signed.

Second, the pope will order two bishops of the underground Church, who have faithfully served for decades under intense persecution, to hand over their dioceses to bishops appointed by the communist authorities. Shantou bishop Zhuang Jianjian has been ordered to retire, a decision that has caused enormous pain to the local Church, while Mindong bishop Guo Xijin has been told that he will be made an “auxiliary” of the Shantou diocese he has long headed.

The fate of the forty or so other underground bishops is unknown, although the Times reports that the communist authorities are expected to recognize the “underground” bishop of Qiqihar, in Heilongjiang province, Bishop Wei Jingyi.

Not long ago, I was told by a senor Vatican official that the signing of a formal agreement with the Chinese Party-State would give Rome the leverage it needs to improve conditions for Catholics in China. His view of the trustworthiness of Chinese officials struck me as naïve, especially in view of the many agreements that Beijing has signed – only to violate – over the years.

It seems to me even more unwise to move forward with an agreement at the present time, when the communist authorities are engaged in a widespread crackdown on all forms of religious expression in China.

Will the same people who are tearing down churches and burning Bibles suddenly cease and desist simply because they have signed an agreement with the Vatican? It seems unlikely, especially given that new regulations restricting religious activities were just announced on February 1 of this year and are being carried out with ever increasing fervor.

To make matters worse, the purported Vatican-China agreement almost seems deliberately designed to be nonbinding, since its terms are to be kept secret from the world in general and from Chinese Catholics in particular. How can it be used as “leverage” if its terms are known only to a handful of people in Rome?

The same senior Vatican official insisted that, since “we will be signing an agreement with Xi Jinping himself … will they not abide by it?”

I quickly recited to him a litany of agreements that the Chinese government has signed, only to violate. These included the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Sino-British Agreement over Hong Kong, and the World Trade Organization covenants.

It is also clear that Xi Jinping simply will not tolerate “foreign interference in internal Chinese matters.” As I write in Bully of Asia, Xi is channeling the late Chairman Mao and, like Mao, is carrying out a Cultural Revolution in China to eliminate all religions. If the Vatican thinks the proposed agreement will put it in a position to aid the Chinese Catholic Church, much less direct its activities, it is in for a disappointment.

The Chinese Party-State, on the other hand, will undoubtedly use the pretext of a Vatican-China agreement to increase its persecution of the Underground Church in China. It will insist that each and every one of China’s 12 million Catholics worship only in churches approved by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. It will use the borrowed authority of the Vatican to further clamp down on unregistered churches in so-called underground communities led by bishops loyal only to Rome.

Those in the Underground Church, who have suffered so much over the decades, may be in for yet another season of suffering.

Steven W. Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.

10 thoughts on Vatican to Allow Beijing to Name Bishops

  • My heart bleeds for the members of the underground Church. Both Bishops and people will suffer far more persecution than before and up to now it has been bad.
    May our good Lord give them the strength to survive.

  • Mystery writer Eliot Pattison places many of his stories in Tibet, which he has visited and knows the people and culture. Although fiction, his books are based on the realities of the country where the underground Buddhist monks are put in “re-education” centers. Sometime their thumbs are chopped off so they cannot say their beads. Meanwhile, the China approved Buddhist monasteries are often simply propaganda centers for the Communist. The Vatican is either very naive or has lost its way – along with the current scandal, I am deeply saddened by what is going on in the church. My husband’s family had to escape the Cultural Revolution in China.

  • This article furthers the deep concern felt by many Catholic leaders and the laity about the current situation the church finds itself in at present, a state of chaos, indecision and serious problems in the hierarchy. Ever since the child abuse scandal that in more recent times has led to the proliferation of clerical abuse in covering up issues that involve bishops and cardinals in further unsavoury behaviour is causing great alarm within the faithful followers of the faith. Now the issue of an agreement between the Vatican and China as explained in the worrying article will cause further concern for Catholic laity. I am amazed that the Vatican would even consider such an agreement, that is in fact literally handing authority completely over to the Chinese communist party. There is no doubt that this agreement if signed will lead to complete control of the underground Chinese church and is opposed to what the gospel teaches with the real control of the church in China by the Chinese government. Is Pope Francis being ill advised of major church Problems? An Agreement as discussed in the commentary will inevitably lead to further chaos and division. I am having a personal faith crisis
    myself about what is happening in our beloved church and disinclined to pray over our tragic situation. Perhaps Pope Benedict 16th saw beforehand what was occurring within to cause him to step down as he did. I holy man indeed. I am feeling abandoned and deeply concerned. David J.

    • Dear David,

      I certainly understand the feelings of abandonment, and the sense of alarm among the faithful. At one point as I was thinking about all this, I thought to myself “well, I could just leave”. And then almost in the same thought, it hit me: I can’t leave! I’m stuck in the Catholic Church! Why? Because to leave would be to show that I don’t “get it” about the Catholic Church, that I don’t really understand what it is. Not what it’s leaders, hierarchs, and authorities do, but what it really is. But the Lord Jesus has told us what it is. I would first have to betray that knowledge in order to leave.

      So I encourage you to think about that question: what IS the Catholic Church? And what does the right and true answer to that question tell you (and me!) about how we should respond to all the disconcerting, alarming stuff that we hear and read about?

      I’ll say a prayer for you brother. It’s a prayer for all of us.

  • The Pope shall NOT sign any agreement with China allowing them to choose Bishops!!!!! They will continue to persecute all Catholics. Pope Francis shall keep his authority! And continue to govern the way Jesus has taught since the beginning of time!

  • So, does this then mean that the state will “confiscate” and utilize Catholic teaching merely for its own purposes, from the social justice themes that stress “one for all–with all” (yet serving the state as the ultimate goal) to the concept of “being open” to procreation, and even (falsely) evangelizing other nations with a state dominant “religion” in the guise of Christianity?

  • This is an unholy alliance, and has the smell of something evil. You would think Pope Francis and his consigliere would have learned from the lessons of the 1933 Reichskonkordat with Nazi Germany, which essentially removed the role of the German Catholic Church from any continued opposition to the Nazi’s. Supposedly the konkordat is to protect the Catholics in Nazi Germany, and the Nazi’s violated the agreement almost as soon as it was signed.

    And what about the disastrous Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican’s dealing with the Soviet Bloc? Another example of dealing with the devil.

    Now the Vatican is doing it again, making a deal with a dictatorship that absolutely can never be trusted.

    We are suppose to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. Now Xi Jinping wants to be both Caesar and God, and the Pope is allowing him to do just that.

    I feel great sorrow for the members of the underground Catholic Church, and for the ever-faithful Catholics in Taiwan. I am sure one day, not long from now, the Vatican will sell out Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with the Red Chinese.

    The powers that be in the Vatican should remember that when one dines with the tiger, it is the tiger that eats last.

  • This saddens me a lot – letting the Chinese government choose its own bishops will create the infiltration of their beliefs and dogmas into the catholic church. There will be persecutions of the Catholics who are aligned with the Vatican. We will not have true shepherds and it will be a disaster.

    We do not need another mess in the Church. We need to pray very hard!


  • Reminds me of the lousy deal the fallen messiah Obama made with Iran. Very new world order. Very Communist/Marxist. Very apocalyptic. Where is Malachi Martin when you need him?

  • Why would the Church need even the approval of the state to appoint a Bishop? The Church shouldn’t be under the authority of the state. The Church is under the authority of Christ, and as Christ says of Himself, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

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